Category: Leo Tolstoy

book review – The Cossacks

There are so many reviews that I have not got round to posting that this blog is failing in one of its original aims – which was to help remind me about the books I had read. After finding myself buying the same book twice it became clear there was some sort of memory problem. Recalling characters and plot lines is getting harder as the weeks go by. For some reason names are always just beyond reach and so you end up referring to the main character etc. Still this one falls into the category of classic so in some sense stands out because unlike most of the other stuff in the review pipeline is 19th century.

The Cossacks are a symbolic people in this story as they are elsewhere in Russian literature. Leo Tolstoy writes with real affection about those that live a life far removed from the splendour and riches of Petersburg.

Although this is a book housing three stories it is the title tale about the Cossacks that sticks in the mind.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about a man dying not just physically but also emotionally as he realises his ambitions to become a success have been at the expense of real happiness. As he ebbs away on the couch he realises that his wife and daughter have already moved on thinking about a life without him. In some senses it is about the pressure to conform to a certain pattern of success but it is also about the hollowness of a marriage and family that is built on ambition and greed rather than love.

There is the potential for a similar type of feeling with Happy Ever After where a young girl falls in love with an older man and it is her ambition that almost kills the relationship. Leaving the quiet of the country for the bright lights of Petersburg the relationship is put under the twin strains of his jealousy and her ambition to make something of herself. The marriage falls into a state of mutual indifference but then when she confronts her husband back in the country she realises that the relationship on offer is now different and includes a love for their children and an adult love that has grown beyond the youthful heady romance of their first days in the country.

It is putting the first two stories together that the theme of this collection emerges, with Tolstoy looking at the many different sides of relationships. The final story also touches on that area. But The Cossacks is also saying something about the value of nature, the corruption of Russian high society and the wealth that those who live simply have that cannot be bought by unhappy wealthy aristocrats.

There is a love triangle between the wealthy Olenin, who takes up residence in the home of the bare footed peasant girl Marianka’s family. The girl is engaged to the young and confident Luka who manages to shoot a Chechen warrior and get the attention of the men and the women for his bravery and swagger. But after a friendship where Olenin goes from falling in love with nature – the real Russia – he also decides that he needs a real Russian wife and after Luka is shot in a battle with revenging Chechens he mistakenly feels that he will be able to take her hand in marriage, but he angrily tells him that he can do nothing for her and he decides to quit the village.

Knowing how Tolstoy viewed the peasantry and the way that real Russia came through contact with the earth and the people who worked with that earth this is more than just a tangled love story. It is more than just a tale about the divide between rich and poor and the barriers love can face. It is also a warning that those sitting in the cities without much idea or care about how the rest of the population work and live will find themselves in the wrong when put alongside their better counterparts.

An interesting collection of stories and one to keep the contact with Tolstoy going but things are still better paced when he can get the whole family relationships and contextualisation that is so much a feature of the 19th century style and then still have 600 pages left to carve out a cracking story.

Version read – Penguin hardback

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book review – The Cossacks

The Cossacks are a symbolic people in this story as they are elsewhere in Russian literature. Leo Tolstoy writes with real affection about those that live a life far removed from the splendour and riches of Petersburg.

Although this is a book housing three stories it is the title tale about the Cossacks that sticks in the mind.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about a man dying not just physically but also emotionally as he realises his ambitions to become a success have been at the expense of real happiness. As he ebbs away on the couch he realises that his wife and daughter have already moved on thinking about a life without him. In some senses it is about the pressure to conform to a certain pattern of success but it is also about the hollowness of a marriage and family that is built on ambition and greed rather than love.

There is the potential for a similar type of feeling with XXX where a young girl falls in love with an older man and it is her ambition that almost kills the relationship. Leaving the quiet of the country for the bright lights of Petersburg the relationship is put under the twin strains of his jealousy and her ambition to make something of herself. The marriage falls into a state of mutual indifference but then when she confronts her husband back in the country she realises that the relationship on offer is now different and includes a love for their children and an adult love that has grown beyond the youthful heady romance of their first days in the country.

It is putting the first two stories together that the theme of this collection emerges, with Tolstoy looking at the many different sides of relationships. The final story also touches on that area. But The Cossacks is also saying something about the value of nature, the corruption of Russian high society and the wealth that those who live simply have that cannot be bought by unhappy wealthy aristocrats.

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

This is an interesting story for a couple of reasons. The first is that unlike most of the Tolstoy that I have come across the main character is a woman and a young one. The second notable feature of the tale is the way Tolstoy manages to draw out some very complex emotions.

He takes a young girl who is overwhelmed by love then seeks the glitter and attractions of the big city but then crushed by the jealously of her husband yearns for the relationships she has lost.

But then in a confrontation that could end with the husband and wife parting he manages to take her to the next level, which is to understand that a new love is blossoming that is a more mature and shared experience between her husband and her children.

A review of this story collection will appear soonish (bit of a queue to work through first)…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

Just as the lovers come out and admit their love for each other and Masha manages to get her man to marry her the problems start.

They move in with the mother-in-law but it is the boredom and the way she is treated like a girl that drives Masha crazy and makes her demand a trip to the capital. But once in St Petersburg the boredom moves to her husband along with jealousy.

A relationship that was meant to be one of extreme happiness is on a knife edge and quite possibly on the brink of falling apart.

Last bit tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

This volume contains not just The Cossacks but two other stories. I have read the Death of Ivan Ilyich before but not Happy Ever After.

There is something that bugs me about putting away a book unfinished so the lunchtime read for today and at least tomorrow is the first of the three stories Happy Ever After. Bearing in mind this is a Russian story the title presumably is going to be a wish rather than a reality.

Three sisters orphaned by the death of their mother are thrown into the hands of th4e executor of the will and the 36 year-old takes a shine to the 17 year old middle daughter Masha. He hides his feelings and tries to convince her that he sees nothing in her but she starts to become more aware of her feelings for him and love blossoms, at least in her heart if not in the open.

She prepares her self for her birthday and a proposal but is he thinking along the same lines? She thinks so but is tragedy lurking?

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

Two worlds collide with the Moscow aristocrat and the Cossack girl and no matter what how earnest the declarations of love the divide cannot be breached.

After he tells Marianka that he will ask for her hand in marriage formally, although she is betrothed to Luka, fate intervenes and his Cossack rival is seriously injured on a raid. The sense of isolation that Olenin has felt all along suddenly consumes him after she angrily tells him that he can do nothing for her and he decides to quit the village.

At the end he departs without even a glance from Marianka and the world he hoped he could enter and learn from closes as he horse pulls away from his lodging.

Tempted to read the other story in this volume so might hold off on the review…

Lunchtime read: The Cossacks

There is going to be a turning point soon and the irony is that it is going to come from the influence not of the Cossacks but from the world of Moscow that Olenin thought he had left behind.

After being taught how to hunt the young aristocrat wanders the woods by day and is exhausted by night but seems to have some sort of road to Damascus moment understanding as he lies down in a stag’s hideaway that life is about giving back not taking.

He starts by giving a horse to the brave Cossack Luka who wants to marry the daughter of Olenin’s landlord.

But with the arrival of more officers from Moscow the atmosphere changes and rather than seeing his duty as helping Luka get together with his sweetheart Olenin starts to wonder whether or not he can love her for himself.

More tomorrow…